It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the practice of forgiveness lies at the very centre of Christian faith. There is a caricature of Christian faith that suggests that the most essential thing is to be able to proclaim a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, so that the possession and use of a particular vocabulary is what marks a Christian apart from the non-Christian. To my mind this is pernicious nonsense, and cuts directly across Jesus’ own teachings, most especially when he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. There, Jesus explicitly teaches that it is not those who call him Lord who enter the Kingdom, but those who have acted according to God’s will, irrespective of the language that they have used in doing so. The language of ‘personal relationship’ isn’t even found in Scripture, which is rather ironic, all things considered.
So if it is the case that, as described in the Book of Revelation, that we will be ‘judged according to our deeds’, what sort of deeds are Christians called to carry out? Jesus lists several – to heal the sick, to visit those in prison, to clothe the naked and so on. I would argue, however, that underlying these specific commands is a more general one, which has the nature of a fundamental spiritual law, and which Jesus repeats in several different forms and on several different occasions. As such, I regard this teaching as the central element of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If we get this right, then all the rest shall follow.
This central teaching is about forgiveness. This is the command to ‘turn the other cheek’, to ‘pray for those who persecute you’; it is the injunction to ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’; it is the warning that we are to examine the beams in our own eyes before we have the temerity to start pointing out the motes in the eyes of another. Why do I describe this as being about forgiveness? I do not believe that the orientation of the human heart towards non-judgement can be separated from the attitude of forgiveness. That is, I believe that the nature of forgiveness is essentially that of non-judgement towards another; it is the resolve to always have a heart which is open to reconciliation. Let me spell out two elements of this, so that the link might hopefully become clear.
Firstly, forgiveness is one element in the process of reconciliation, and that process runs through a number of stages. The classic understanding of sin – what Christians call those acts which cause us to become strangers to God and one another – is that sin involves the breach of a relationship. That might be a breach of our relationship with God, breaking the first great commandment that we are to love God above all things; or, it might be a breach of our relationship with our neighbour, breaking the second great commandment that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. The question is: how might we overcome that breach? In other words, the solution to the problem of sin (a break in a relationship) is reconciliation (the restoration of a relationship). In order for a reconciliation to take place, there needs to be an acknowledgement from one party that they have caused a breach, and this we call ‘repentance’. This is the apology, the ‘sorry I got that one wrong’. There also needs to be an openness to reconciliation on the part of the one who has been hurt by the breach. This is the ability to forgive, to accept the apology. Where there has been a breach in a relationship, then when one party says sorry, and the other party accepts the apology, then there is a reconciliation. When this happens, this is what Christians call the Kingdom of God.
The second element that needs to be clarified is that when Jesus teaches ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ he is not recommending a lifestyle of radical imprudence. If there were to be a serial killer abroad in our society, it is not a breach of Jesus’ teaching to say that such a person needed to be caught and locked away for a long time. There is a distinction that needs to be drawn between judgement as condemnation and judgement as discrimination. In other words, what Jesus is teaching us is that our hearts must always remain open to the possibility of relationships being repaired. The serial killer might come to their senses and repent of their sin – in which case, the Christian path is to accept that forgiveness and enable a relationship to be restored. That relationship might well mean that the serial killer remains behind bars for the rest of their life – that is what a right discrimination on the part of the authorities might mean. Yet this is also why Jesus says that we are to visit those in prison, to ensure that they are not lost from human contact.
For this is the essential teaching – that no human being is to be cast aside. We are not to reduce those human beings who hurt us to the state of ‘less than human’. We can see this human tendency repeating throughout history, when the enemies of a society are reduced to an ‘other’, to a ‘them’, which makes the hatred and murder of ‘them’ legitimate within a particular society. It is happening now with respect to those human beings who are part of ISIS in the Middle East. When they are chopping the heads off from journalists or aid workers, they are engaging in acts which are barbaric and evil, and they must be opposed. Yet the challenge for the Christian is to oppose them without reducing them to the status of ‘less than human’. We are to always remain open to the restoration of a full relationship. We might also, of course, ponder our own culpability in creating the situation in the Middle East that has led us into this situation.
In the end, the spiritual heart of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and non-judgement is, for me, the teaching that ‘the measure you give will be the measure that you receive’. In other words, if we harbour judgementalism in our own heart against those who have wronged us then that judgementalism will itself cripple our own ability to experience an abundant life, a life in all its fullness. Forgiveness does not benefit the one who is being forgiven, it benefits the one who is doing the forgiving. It is the setting down of a burden, a setting down of hurt, a setting down of the desire to be God and to weigh the soul of another human being in our own scales. We are simply not capable of that divine discernment, and the prideful pursuit of righteous condemnation leads only to greater and greater suffering. We need to let go of such things, and leave them to God.
One of the most moving things that a priest can ever do is to hear a confession, when a penitent comes to a “discreet and learned minister of God’s Word” in order to “open his grief” and be relieved of the spiritual burdens that they have been carrying. For me, the most important part of this service, however, comes at the very end, when the priest says “The Lord has put away your sins. Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner too.” I’m not sure it is ever given to a priest to say something more truthful than that.